F-1 students, volunteering, and unpaid internships - what to know

By Kaitlyn Garcia, J.D. | Immigration Attorney | Houston, Texas

Generally put, an F-1 student must have employment authorization to work. This authorization is work approved as practical training. There are two types of practical training available to F-1 students seeking to work: curricular practical training (CPT) and optional practical training (OPT). So what type of work requires F-1 work authorization?

There is a difference between "working" and "volunteering" 

Under federal regulations, practical training includes internships. Due to this, an F-1 student would need work authorization in the form of CPT or OPT to participate in the internship (paid or unpaid). 8 CFR 214.2(f)(10)(i) serves as a good legal reference on this.

Additionally the Department of Labor (DOL) has established that internships in the for-profit sector will most often be viewed as employment, which indicates that work authorization would be required. 

The DOL has even taken it further and stated that unpaid interns may actually need to be paid if certain criteria are met by the type of work the intern will do. To find out if an unpaid intern actually needs to be a paid intern, DOL has published a test which can be referred to in their fact sheet called Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act. 

True volunteer work is another story. If an "intern" is actually performing volunteer work (and I mean true volunteer work) then they would not need work authorization to do the work. However, volunteer work is strictly limited to activities that are considered "charitable,"such as participating in a bake sale to raise funds for a cause or helping out in a soup kitchen, over a short duration like a weekend or so. Volunteer work would not be work for the benefit of an employer, would not be related to the student's field of study, and would need to be short in duration. The bottom line is that volunteer work where employment authorization is not required is very limited.